Bitter River

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Impeccable John Connerly stepped through the front door of his home in Rio Agrio. He looked at the sky for weather, then made his way down the cobbles toward the main street of the village. From behind a curtained window, Kymbat watched him move with handsome purpose, as though he knew where he was going. By the time he turned the corner she was closing the door after herself. She followed him. Kymbat was his second wife and the only person in the world with the right to say dementia.

But that was the wrong word. John was just now turning sixty-four. Sixty-four was not old, not in today’s world. She blamed the accident. It broke ribs and a leg and punctured a lung. All that was fixable. He healed. He retired. They left Italy and bought a place in the Castile village he had been telling her about since they met. But the accident had poked a hole in his mind that could not be fixed. The doctors in Madrid were matter-of-fact. None of them understood the human brain. The honest ones admitted their ignorance. You must bring him regularly for tests.

Following John through the village was easy. On a glorious fall day, it did not occur to him to look back. The sun was generous, throwing a bright shawl across the shoulders of man, beast, and building alike. On a day like this it was easy to imagine how he had fallen in love with Rio Agrio when he was posted to the Madrid embassy as a young diplomat with a sunny future. The village was more prosperous now but held tightly to its old Spanish prerogatives. Self-absorbed and secure, Rio Agrio was proud of its stately stone, its position at the center of the only world worth knowing.

From a safe distance Kymbat watched her husband stroll down the street in his blazer and pressed flannels. He was wearing the burgundy tie with the muted stripe. (When they married, she got rid of every last tie in his wardrobe because Jane, the bad wife, had picked them out.) He nodded to everyone who crossed his field of vision. He stopped in front of a shop to scan the newspaper headlines. People were respectful to him, and sympathetic. Their solicitude cut Kymbat like a knife; humiliation by proxy.

He was going to the river, although he might not know that himself. A kilometer outside the village, the Rio Agrio ran a crooked course between two hills that suggested lazy comfort. They had picked out the neighborhood a million years ago and settled in to rest. People told Kymbat the water was heavy with minerals. It had a coppery cast, running shallow over a bed of flat stones. She had tasted it once, scooping a handful on a whim. It was so bitter she spat it out.

She watched John make his way to the edge hoping he would not wade in and ruin his shoes. His behavior was no longer predictable. Luckily he did not. He stood on the low bank looking around as if waiting for someone, so she made her move. She went up behind him and said without warning, “John, what are you doing?”

He was startled. His mouth twisted up on one side, a tic developed to hide his confusion when he failed to understand a question. It was an attempt to be ironic, but it only underscored his befuddlement. He was still a good-looking man, and the ghost of authority inhabited him.

“Things are not as bad as you imagine, Kymbat.”

If this was code, she lacked the key to unlock it. She told him, “You remember Elizabeth is coming.”

He bridled. Lately he took offense when something she said or did seemed to express doubt of his capacity.

“Of course I remember. Elizabeth. My daughter. She lives in London. She is an attorney. We are all hoping she will marry the fellow, sooner or later.”

The fellow was Elizabeth’s fiancé. They lived together. Who cared, right now, what his name was? This was a test John administered to himself, and thankfully he passed. For a moment Kymbat’s anxiety went away, and the beauty of the place lent her an odd sense of well-being. Spain. Low trees of silver green congregated to gossip on the haunches of dry hills. Black goats chewed at bushes; connoisseurs. A single vulture, just as black, wheeled across a sky of soft brilliance whose purpose was to illustrate the virtues of light. She was from Kazakhstan. She knew hard steppes and harder winters, a cold capital constructed with oil money at an autocrat’s whim. It was taking time, learning to find the natural world a refuge.

Appealing to the gentleman in her husband brought out his best.

“May I say something, John, something you might not care to hear?”

“Just don’t ask me the name of the third-longest river in the world. I used to know, but just this moment I can’t bring it back.”

More than likely he had known that third river’s name. Before the accident, his mind was fine. It was supple and stuffed with knowledge. He was a raconteur whose skill with people meant he never bored them. He picked up languages the way other people picked up phrases. A born diplomat, people always said, a man of congenial abilities.

“This problem you’ve been having,” she said.

“Problem?”

“I mean remembering things.”

“What about it?”

“Elizabeth is coming.”

“You’ve said that.”

“It’s just that, if she notices you have a problem, I’m afraid she will put you in an institution somewhere.”

“An institution . . .”

“For people with health problems. We would lose our home here in Rio Agrio.”

“That’s absurd.”

It was not the first time they were navigating this conversation. Kymbat’s worries about Elizabeth were well grounded. The woman was an engine of efficiency, American in the worst way. There was a ruthless quality to her logic, and the decisions to which it led her were harder than stones. Dementia.

Of course Elizabeth blamed Kymbat for the break-up of her father’s marriage, never mind that Jane was pretty much gone from the scene when Kymbat met him in a Vienna café. Kymbat was twenty-four years younger than the diplomat she fell in love with. She was taller than he and—John taught her the word—willowy. Her sex appeal depended on a kind of bodily hauteur that was beyond her control. To Western men she was exotic. They wondered where she was from and were not shy about asking.

That night she had an assignation with a stranger. It was exciting. The stranger was her husband.

In Elizabeth’s eyes all of that added up to an unforgivable offense. She must be scheming for his money. Some day at lunch the Kazakhstani woman who had tricked her father into marriage would poison his soup.

John took her arm. “We can go now.”

In fact Jane had a right to half of John’s pension because they had been married so long. And John was scrupulous. Marrying Kymbat, he signed over the survivor’s rights to his government money to Jane. Fair is fair, he said. I hope you understand. What he didn’t do was tell Jane he was leaving her the money. His death would surprise her. He had been doing his best to put aside a little to protect Kymbat when he was gone. The accident put an end to the plan.

She used the walk home as a practice session, quizzing John on the questions Elizabeth would put to him. He appeared not to mind. He took it as a kind of game, and John enjoyed games. When he did not respond sensibly to a question she rephrased it. Sometimes that helped. She could only hope that Elizabeth would not show up in interrogation mode. For Elizabeth, life was a situation, and situations cried out to be resolved.

Despite her worries, Kymbat enjoyed the walk. Rio Agrio was as picturesque as a village could be. The Spaniards seemed to be born with the knack of dignified movement, imparting consequence to anything they did. Turning around a truck. Sweeping the walk in front of a store. Choosing tomatoes, or chasing a football. Poise was built into all of it. She could be happy here. She could manage John’s difficulty as long as she had to, if only Elizabeth left them alone.

That night she had an assignation with a stranger. It was exciting. The stranger was her husband. It did not happen often—not often enough—but once in a while he came to bed erect and amorous. When that happened she had the sense he did not know who she was. Suddenly he found himself in bed with an attractive younger woman whose Asian features he never tired of tracing with a curious hand. Any man would take advantage of such a predicament, any man would think himself lucky. Kymbat played her part in their illicit rendezvous without reservation. It turned her on, and the frenzy of John’s lovemaking made up for the dry weeks when he came to bed and slept with her as bunkmate.

After his climax he rolled away from her mumbling. She asked him what he was saying.

“Foreign ministry, visa problems. Can’t let the sons of bitches get away with it. Reciprocity, right? Otherwise what’s the point?”

“Goodnight, John.”

“What? Yes, goodnight, my love.”


Try as she might, she could not wake him up. It was Elizabeth who had laid him in the box, damn the woman. A terrible desolation settled on Kymbat as she sat there in the dark room alongside the coffin. Her tears were diamonds. Her heart was much too loud. She had lost all memory of who she was, and where she came from. Cold was only a word. Then he sat up. Here came the famous Connerly grin as he pulled something from his pocket. A tiny velvet box. He gestured for her to open it. As she reached to take the box, the landscape shifted and she understood how far she still had to go to reach true and total desolation.

The dream unsettled her. John was sleeping soundly. She got out of bed and went to the window. In the street below, a small Ford truck—what the Spaniards called a camioneta—was parked on the blurred periphery of light from an overhead lamp. Near the truck, at the height of a man’s head, the red tip of a cigarette moved a little. Armando. He had no business standing in her street, not at that hour or any hour. She hoped to have enough Spanish soon to tell him why.

In the morning, over a three-minute egg and black coffee, John consented to be drilled again on the things Elizabeth would want to know. And then, before eleven and before Kymbat was ready, Elizabeth knocked. She had rented a car at the Madrid airport. Kymbat had been hoping that Martin, her English boyfriend, would come along. Undiluted Elizabeth was like vodka on an empty stomach. No such luck.

Still, her delight at seeing her father was real, and easy, and a nice thing to be around. John’s pleasure was just as heartfelt although tinctured by worry he would get something wrong. They sat in the front room. Kymbat brought tea and pastries, and Elizabeth presided. There was something official about her, casually as she was dressed in slacks and a sweater. Her long dark hair was a treasure. Her face was a map of good taste. A perfectionist would find nothing to criticize in her regular features. She looked like her mother. That could not be helped.

“Tell me something about yourself I don’t already know,” she said to her father.

His response was perfectly acceptable. “What would you like to hear?”

“Do you get bored, living in a village? After all the embassies, I mean. The people, the work, the travel. You have lived a terrific life, Dad.”

He was wearing reading glasses, the better to appreciate some pictures from a skiing trip that she had shown him on her telephone. As he peered over the top of the lenses, perplexed, Kymbat’s gut clenched.

“I remember everything.”

It came off sounding playful, and Elizabeth took the statement at face value. Kymbat told herself she must work harder not to dislike the girl. She couldn’t script the entire visit, she knew that. In fact, the moment she knew must come arrived as they finished their lunch. Kymbat carried the dirty dishes on a tray to the kitchen. When she came back into the dining room, Elizabeth’s eyes were red and puffy. She looked miserable.

“My father and I are going out for a walk,” she told Kymbat, taking his arm protectively.

Uninvited, Kymbat nodded. The tactical defeat was inevitable. There would be more such moments when father and daughter chose to be alone. How could they not? The best Kymbat could hope for was minor damage that she could repair. She cleaned up the kitchen, made herself coffee, and sat with a Spanish magazine as the spirits of her parents wrestled over her. Her father had been an unquenchable optimist. Her mother never expected anything less than the worst. They did not consciously make their daughter their battlefield, but the practical effect was the same as if they had.

Her father, Dosken, worked in the finance ministry. In 1997, the president moved the capital of the nation north. It was a wrenching transition from lovely Almaty in the south, with its Russian boulevards, its parks, its Soviet opera house. Astana, on the steppes, was supposed to be a bulwark against the Russian aggression that would surely roll their way again. And Dosken made the best of it. It will be an adventure, he told his family.

Aijan, Kymbat’s mother, did not see the move as an adventure. It was fate’s contempt. She stayed in Almaty with her sister. Dosken took Kymbat with him. He pleaded with his wife to join them, and eventually she did. After a difficult year she left. Eight months later she was back for ten months. Her comings and goings defined the disjointed rhythm of their family life. When Dosken died in his late fifties, Aijan moved back into her sister’s, where there was not really room, and closed the door.

Lacking a home, Kymbat managed. Her father had put aside a little money for her education. She got a degree in business administration. A series of jobs began bringing out organizational skills she had not known were there. Through the years she gained confidence, independence, and a point of view neither as buoyant as her father’s nor as gloomy as her mother’s. She visited Aijan dutifully in the spare room at her aunt’s house, listening patiently to the ongoing argument with the husband who was no longer there to hold up his end. The sky, Aijan never failed to point out, was about to fall.

Her mother, losing her eyesight along with interest in the world outside her room, gave Kymbat her crimped blessing when she told her about the job in Istanbul. She would be the executive assistant to the owner of a construction firm eager to get in on the building boom in Kazakhstan. And the job went well. She liked Taner, her boss, who never hit on her or made a big deal of her looks. He turned over the logistics of his work life to her, and she took charge.

She knew something was up the day he called her into his office and asked how her Russian was. He was a thin man of fifty with a face incapable of masking his empathy. He looked down at the worry beads in his hand as though wondering how they got there. He went to the window, where he watched the boat traffic on the Golden Horn, making sure not to look at her.

Kymbat told him, “Russian is my mother tongue. You know that. I speak it better than I speak Kazakh.”

He nodded. “So.”

“So?”

“You have the two things I need for a special assignment. Discretion, and good Russian.”

The assignment was to act as tour guide for a Russian billionaire in Istanbul. For reasons Taner did not elaborate, the visit was to be kept strictly secret. You will call him Mr. Arsenev, which is not his name. Please do not inquire deeply into his biography. Kymbat was to show him the sights, answer his questions, chat in Russian about any subject he proposed.

“This isn’t . . .” she said to Taner.

Taner was offended. “Would I do that to you, Kymbat?”

Of course he would not. So she met Mr. Arsenev at nine the following morning. The billionaire traveled with two bodyguards who looked like criminals, and a girl friend dressed trampishly in Prada and flaunting her breasts. He was over fifty; the girl could not be twenty-five. Cruising the splendid city in a Mercedes, the bodyguards in a car immediately behind, Mr. Arsenev drank vodka at a steady rate and thought Kymbat ought to, too. Her firm refusal sparked tension between them that got hotter as the day went on. Galina, the girl friend, was clearly used to her lover’s moods and paid no attention to anything. At a jewelry store, she consented to the humiliation of being told to pick out something extravagant, something tasteful, for Arsenev’s wife. The deal was, she could pick out something for herself just as extravagant.

The day was long and trying. By the time they arrived at the glittering Dolmabahçe Palace, Arsenev was sullen, Galina was bored, and Kymbat was worried.

“Go get the director.”

It was no easy thing, summoning the director of a major cultural organization on command, but Kymbat had strong people skills and pulled it off. Her Turkish was solid enough by that point that she was able to translate comfortably. The director was a fastidious man in urban black with a purple cravat. He looked more like an artist than a bureaucrat and came forward smiling. Arsenev shook his hand roughly.

“Ask him how much for the Aivazovsky paintings,” he ordered Kymbat.

“I’m sorry?”

“You heard me.”

Aivazovsky, it turned out, was a Russian painter of the nineteenth century. The billionaire collected marine paintings of the sort Aivazovsky was known for. The conversation was long, unpleasant, and unproductive. Arsenev thought Kymbat must be translating poorly since money was no object and he wanted the paintings in a bad way. He did not appear to understand what the director meant by cultural patrimony.

When the politely smiling director continued to say no, and no again, Arsenev snarled. “Never mind. I want to see the paintings.”

“Of course,” said Kymbat, relieved. That much, at least, she could deliver.

“Not with all these people around,” he said. “Have the director get rid of them.”

“I don’t think he will do that.”

Another painful conversation followed. It ended when Arsenev asked how much it would cost to close down the museum for the day so he could wander at his leisure. The director told him $250,000. Arsenev cursed him and walked out.

Kymbat followed, but the Russian did not want her in his Mercedes again. You just made a big mistake, he told her. Galina looked at her with pity and understanding. She knew what it was to cross the man. The bodyguards glared at Kymbat as though she had a pistol in her purse; the slightest move and they would drop her. She turned away and lost herself in the crowd. When she got back to the office, Taner had the air of a man whose favorite brother has just died. He slapped his worry beads against the side of his desk and looked away.

“I’m sure you did not meant to upset the man.”

“I translated what he said. I translated what the other man said.”

“He has a bad temper, and a long memory. He is a powerful child. It will not be safe for you here.”

“Fine, I’ll go home.”

“No. He has too many interests in Kazakhstan. Why he has taken such a dislike to you I cannot say, but there is the fact. I will give you money. Take a vacation. Be away some months. Please do not inform me where you choose to go. Better that I not know.”

In bed, later that night, John asked Kymbat to help him. “I want to understand her sadness.”

So she went to Vienna. She slept late. Afternoons, she sat at a café reading librettos. In the evenings she attended the opera. She was lonely. When she called her mother, Aijan complained bitterly about being forced to relocate to the hostile wilds of Astana. Wolves. There were wolves on those northern steppes. One afternoon as Kymbat watched snow fall decorously outside the café window, John Connerly walked in. She was taken with his smile. The second time they talked, he took pains to shoulder blame for the marriage that had gone bad.


At dinner Elizabeth told them she was staying in Rio Agrio. She did not say how long. By the time they sat at the table to eat she had recovered her composure, but she was chastened in a way that was new to Kymbat. Martin was moving out. He might leave the apartment while she was in Spain. Kymbat watched John anxiously. She could not tell whether he grasped his daughter’s predicament, but he certainly felt her distress and was as loving as a father should be. When she needed a hug, he gave her two. Then a healthy instinct to protect himself sent him to bed early.

“I’m awfully tired,” he told them.

He sounded confused, as if some sort of explanation were called for that he could not come up with. He kissed Elizabeth first and then Kymbat, and climbed the stairs slowly. They listened until they heard the door to the bedroom close. Elizabeth put aside her unhappiness. She was ready to solve a problem, if only she could get hold of it.

“What’s wrong with my father?”

“What do you mean?”

“He seems so forgetful. When I asked him about Roy, he said something about Pakistan. Roy never served in Pakistan.”

Roy was John’s best friend. They had joined the foreign service and risen through the ranks together. Lately, Kymbat had been helping John compose answers to the emails Roy sent from Prague.

“He gets tired,” she said. “That’s all. It’s been that way since the accident.”

Elizabeth sat straight in her chair and snapped at Kymbat, “You should never have let him get behind the wheel.”

Kymbat nodded meekly. “I know.”

John had always been a distracted driver, his attention drawn from the road by conversation or a passing sight. That night, in Rome, returning from dinner with friends, he had insisted on driving with two glasses of wine inside him. The accident was not his fault, though. An Algerian immigrant in a bread truck broadsided them as they entered a traffic roundabout.

For Kymbat, the memory never dimmed. The shock of the impact, the sensation of free-fall. The Coliseum as backdrop as the Algerian wailed, pounding his fists on the ground in frustration because his new life, a good life, was about to go up in smoke. Kymbat herself was only shaken up, but the collision jarred loose a memory of Astana. She was walking with her father in a snowstorm. The air reeked of coal smoke, and she was sobbing. Don’t cry, her father said, you don’t want your tears to freeze. With an effort she suppressed the memory. She looked for John. He lay on his back on the pavement. There was blood. His eyes were closed and she thought he was dead.

Elizabeth asked her, “What do the doctors tell him?”

Actually, the doctors spoke mainly to Kymbat because John was indifferent. He found the rounds of tests and consultations one more baffling social ritual to which he was subjected as though he were being punished.

“The doctors have not been definitive. We go back to Madrid next month. I’ll send you an email.” That was a mistake. She corrected it. “I mean if your father doesn’t.”

There was a moment when they could have hated each other. It passed. What came was not a truce, it was a recognition. You are his daughter. I am his wife. The recognition led Kymbat to realize she must no longer be passive. Unless she acted, unless she did something positive, Elizabeth’s force of will would carry John away.

Next morning they breakfasted outside on the back patio, where the October sun was a luxury not to be wasted.

“I think we should go hunting this afternoon,” Kymbat said.

In the Connerly family language, hunting meant taking pictures. John was a skilled photographer. He got more pleasure from his camera than from just about anything she could think of. Dementia, or whatever was afflicting him, had not affected his ability. Elizabeth would see him at his very best, taking pictures. That was Kymbat’s plan, arrived at over night. A day at a time, she would come up with ways to make her husband look normal, look good. Eventually, Elizabeth would leave them alone and go back to England.

“It’s a wonderful idea,” Elizabeth said, and John beamed. He sensed tension between the two women, and here was a moment of harmony.

“I will shop for a picnic this morning,” Kymbat told them.

Shopping in Rio Agrio was not a chore; it was a pleasure. There was a small supermarket, but if you chose to you could avoid it entirely. Kymbat liked buying vegetables from one place, bread from another, meat from a butcher, eggs from a gnarled woman with a patch on one eye. She got what she wanted and was strolling home with her bounty in straw bags when Armando’s truck pulled up next to her.

He switched off the engine and got out of the truck. Armando owned a vehicle repair shop on the edge of Rio Agrio. He was her age, more or less, and had the elegance of body that came naturally to Spanish men. Although he worked on cars his hands were never dirty. They moved as he spoke like talented white butterflies. He had been sending signals for several months. Kymbat had been deflecting them.

“Your packages are heavy. Let me give you a ride home.”

Kymbat’s Spanish was still tentative. For some reason he seemed to like that.

“I don’t mind walking,” she told him, “but thank you.”

“I insist.”

He reached for a bag. She pulled it away. For just the wrong instant they were close to one another as Elizabeth and John came around the corner. Kymbat was mortified. The only thing to do was act the truth of her innocence. She introduced Elizabeth to Armando. Everyone shook hands. Armando was careful not to condescend to John, although everyone in Rio Agrio knew something was not quite right about the well dressed American who had bought the fine old house on Calle Alameda.

Elizabeth spoke good Spanish and said something possibly cutting to Armando, but Kymbat could not follow it. She turned to Kymbat. “You’re busy. Dad and I will carry the groceries.”

“No,” Kymbat told her. “I will take them.”

But Elizabeth wanted to make a point, and Kymbat surrendered her bags.

“We’ll see you at home,” Elizabeth said, making it sound as though she didn’t really believe they would.

She piloted her father away. John was maddeningly docile and looked at Kymbat as at an interesting woman he might like to get to know.

“I’m sorry,” said Armando when they were gone.

“It can’t be helped.”

“I suppose not. Anyway I’ve been wanting to say something to you for a long time.”

“Please don’t.”

He shook his head. “It’s just, if you need something, anything, don’t hesitate to come to me.”

It was a perfectly pitched statement, balanced on the thin edge between civility and a come-on. But Kymbat had no time to fret about it. She had a picnic to prepare. She thanked Armando. When he was back in his truck she wished she had had the nerve to tell him to stay away from Calle Alameda.

The hunting expedition that afternoon turned out better than she could have hoped. John had made the transition to digital photography with enthusiasm, and his memory problem did not affect the way he handled the camera. As he experimented with settings and composed his shots he was in command of the machine and the moment. It was heartening to watch. As they wandered in the hills outside of town, Elizabeth got as much pleasure talking her father through his pictures as he did taking them. They spread a blanket on the ground under a tree and ate a late lunch, sharing a bottle of Rioja. Kymbat did her dexterous best to steer the conversation away from rocks that could puncture.

Success. And the easy outing made the evening better than the one before, although Elizabeth was sad. When she called Martin on her cell phone, he did not pick up.

“He says I haven’t figured out how to love him properly, and he’s tired of waiting,” she told them.

After showering, she had put on pajamas and a robe. They made her look more vulnerable than she usually did, like a person with a heart capable of breaking, and Kymbat tried again to like her. In bed, later that night, John asked her to help him.

“Help you how, John? What do you want to do?”

“I want to understand her sadness.”

Kymbat was preoccupied trying to come up with another activity for the next day that would cast John in the right light. The right light was normalcy. But she put her worry aside and told him, “She thinks she has been too critical of Martin. She thinks that’s why he is leaving her.”

“Leaving her?”

“Yes. Do you remember she said that? Do you remember she cried and you hugged her when she told you?”

No answer.

After a few moments she heard him snoring lightly.

The activity her sleeping mind came up with was more of a gamble than the photography had been. Back in Rome, when their life together was new and perfect, John used to like to cook a Turkish meal for friends. He had developed a love for the cuisine while assigned to the American consulate in Istanbul, back when Elizabeth was a little girl. He invited charming, talkative Italians, along with a scattering of diplomats from other missions. He put on Turkish music and served their guests a meal the equal of what they would get in a fine restaurant on the Bosporus. Kymbat wanted to believe that cooking would be like taking pictures, specific to itself, something that did not require a story, or mastery of the past, but she wasn’t sure.

When he came back from his morning walk through the village with Elizabeth, Kymbat proposed that he make them a Turkish dinner.

“I can get lamb at the butcher’s,” she said. “I saw it the other day. It looked good.”

“Me?” he said. “You want me to cook for you?”

He sounded mystified, and Kymbat was sure she had made a mistake, but after a moment he said, “Barbunya.”

Elizabeth said, “I love your barbunya, Dad.”

Barbunya was beans. The word seemed to open a path for John to get reacquainted with the man with a flair for Turkish food, the man who knew his way around a kitchen.

“I know where I can get the beans,” Kymbat told them.

It took all afternoon to prepare the meal. Elizabeth worked with her father. Reading a book in the living room, trying not to fidget, Kymbat eavesdropped on the conversation, which was matter-of-fact. Lower the heat on that front burner, will you? They prompted each other to remember the Turkish names for garlic and carrots and the other ingredients they used to know.

Then, out of nowhere, John said, “You remember Allan.”

“Are you talking about Grandpa?”

“All those years, I listened and listened and never said anything.”

“I don’t understand, Dad.”

“He was always so critical of Jean.”

Jean was John’s mother. Kymbat knew his parents’ marriage had been unhappy, and long-lived. Before the accident he disliked talking about his childhood.

“Once,” John told his daughter, “Allan told Jean she looked terrible in the dress she was wearing. ‘You look like a tart,’ he said. She had just put on the dress. It was new, and she was beautiful. When he said that, she cried. Oh, how my heart ached. I think . . . I think I did not know how to say to him what I should say.”

“What is that, Dad?”

“Let your heart love. Forget the dress. Forget everything. Just love.”

Elizabeth was crying quietly. Listening secretly, Kymbat felt her own eyes tearing up. He had done the one important thing he had to do for his daughter, the one thing no one else could do.

The Turkish meal was as good as she remembered it being in their Rome days. Mid-way through, John put down his spoon. He picked up his wine glass.

“Barbunya,” he announced.

It was a complete sentence. It said everything that needed saying.


Whatever it was that Elizabeth told Martin on the phone, it was enough to stop him from moving out. Two days after the Turkish meal she was on her way back to London. As John carried her suitcase downstairs for her, she took Kymbat by the forearm. She held on hard.

“He’s going to get better, isn’t he?”

It was the truce Kymbat had been hoping for.

“Yes,” she said. “He will get better.”

That afternoon, in the fresh absence of Elizabeth, Kymbat and John took a walk. November was approaching. The sun was still Spanish bright, but the chilly air made Kymbat nostalgic for home. She knew she would never go back to Kazakhstan. In fact she did not want to. As they approached the Rio Agrio a covey of quail scattered from the underbrush. The panicked drumming of the birds’ wings startled both of them, and they laughed. They stopped for a moment. Kymbat took John’s arm.

“Do you want to go back?”

“Back?”

“Home.”

There was real pain in his face as he told her, “I can’t find Sparky.”

Sparky was John’s dog, dead for forty years. Kymbat did not know what to say. He pointed across the river, where the land sloped upward toward the eroded peak of a brown hill.

“I think he’s over there.”

“John.”

“I’m going to get him.”

She understood that he would not be talked out of crossing. They took off their shoes. They folded their socks into the shoes. The earth under Kymbat’s feet was surprisingly warm in the sun. They hesitated a moment, as if they were each separately remembering what they were there for.

Mark Jacobs has published more than one hundred stories in magazines including The Atlantic and Playboy. You can find him at markjacobsauthor.com.  

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